Egypt’s Revolution

Bringing the Army Back

Egypt Elections

It was the poster child for the Arab Spring. Egypt looked in 2011 like the model for a revitalized Middle East, as young demonstrators jamming a Cairo square swept away half a century of military dictatorship. The euphoria soon faded. Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president was removed by the army in his first year, after provoking further protests by citizens who accused him of hoarding power for his Islamist party. With stability overtaking democracy as the public’s bigger concern, Egyptians elected another military strongman their leader in mid-2014. By focusing on restoring order and reviving the economy, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has mostly avoided further popular unrest, even while returning to the repressive measures of the past. Egypt’s revolution has come full circle.

The Situation

Since El-Sisi, as the army chief, pushed his predecessor, Muhamed Mursi, from office in 2013, thousands of Egyptians have died in political violence. At least 20,000 have been arrested and more than 1,000 have been sentenced to death in mass trials, with most punishments later commuted to life imprisonment. Those targeted by authorities were mainly members or supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood. The winner of every regional and national election between 2011 and El-Sisi’s ascent, the Brotherhood was labelled terrorist and banned. El-Sisi’s regime has expanded its authority with decrees, for instance formalizing the army’s role in internal security and broadening the purview of military courts. The public appears to have largely accepted the return to authoritarianism. Protests were muted when a court dismissed criminal charges against Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who provoked the 2011 revolution. El-Sisi managed to reduce fuel subsidies, which have long burdened the government, and increase some taxes without sparking unrest. The relative calm, despite sporadic terrorist attacks, appeared to be improving investor confidence in Egypt, which recently has relied on aid from Gulf Arab countries.

Source: Pew Research Center (Spring 2014 Global Attitudes Survey)
Source: Pew Research Center (Spring 2014 Global Attitudes Survey)

The Background

Military leaders have shaped Egypt’s history for more than 3,000 years. The army commander Horemheb quelled strife after the child-pharaoh Tutankhamen died in 1322 BC with no successor; a military junta then ruled for 13 generations. Slave soldiers known as Mamluks arrived in the early 1250s and created political, social and economic networks over a 500-year rule. In the 14th century, Arab historian Ibn Khaldun called Cairo “the center of the universe and the garden of the world.” Egypt stagnated under British rule. After independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a general, sought to re-establish the country’s eminence, nationalizing the Suez Canal and leading Arabs in wars against Israel. As Egypt’s ruling general in 1978, Anwar Sadat signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. His successor, Mubarak, an air force commander, survived an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, though his regime became increasingly ossified and wealth failed to trickle down to ordinary citizens. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, and half its 85 million people are under the age of 25. The military controls large segments of the economy — with commercial interests from food manufacturing to road building and real estate.

Source: Congressional Research Service, U.S. State Department
Source: Congressional Research Service, U.S. State Department

The Argument

El-Sisi’s supporters say he rescued Egypt from Islamists trying to turn the country into a theocracy. They point to the deadly turmoil in nearby Libya, Syria and Iraq as evidence of what otherwise might have happened in Egypt. Critics say El-Sisi has quashed Egypt’s shot at democracy. They argue that by conflating moderate Islamists with violent extremists, his regime’s indiscriminate crackdown only radicalizes the former. And with its deep roots in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away. While many of Egypt’s allies — including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel and Russia — have embraced the regime’s position that its actions are necessary for stability, some are conflicted. The U.S. suspended some of its $1.5 billion in annual assistance in 2013 in an effort to prod the country toward democracy, then resumed delivery of Apache attack helicopters and half of its military support in 2014.

The Reference Shelf

  • “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” a 2010 book by Toby Wilkinson.
  • A March 2014 Carnegie Endowment Organization report, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”
  • Congressional Research Service report on U.S.-Egyptian relations.

First Published May 22, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:

Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net

Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at lharrison@bloomberg.net

Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net